Sunday, February 13, 2011

There is more than One Way to Stack an Eggplant

The weekend I moved to Hoboken, I had no food in the refrigerator and only condiments in the cabinet. My mom and I had spent the better part of the day concerned with finding the right angle to complement the picture of poppies I wanted centered over my bed, rearranging furniture; hell bent on squeezing my couch through the narrow third floor landing. By dinnertime, we had certainly worked up an appetite. It occurred to us while standing barefoot in my apartment on the Saturday night of Labor Day weekend with a shower rod in our hands that we’d worried over the wrong things – what would we eat?

We agreed on one thing – neither of us was volunteering to sort through the ten or so odd unopened bins that were scattered throughout the living room. Neither of us could be bothered with washing dishes. We simply wanted something savory and something fast and we didn’t want to have to go looking for a parking spot to bring it home. 

After drawing straws, I reached for my shoes and turned left at the corner of 11th. There was a plan. Walk one block in either direction and pick something. I chose an Italian Pizzeria whose menu boasted delicious Eggplant Parmesan and crossed my fingers that it wouldn’t disappoint.

Eggplant never disappointed in the hands of my grandmother and aunt – it never tasted soggy or saturated or overcooked. This eggplant from Napoli’s was a Russian roulette. Craving something hearty and familiar, mom and I took our chances.

This weekend while visiting Pine Bush NY, I found myself in familiar territory. Once again I’d stumbled upon a smaller town with no real sense of the local eateries before my arrival. A true foodie, I knew better than to eat in the town’s famous Japanese restaurant that Zagat gave a fabulous rating. I could have Hibachi on any given night. I was in rural New York surrounded by snow covered winding roads and general store like establishments – the locals definitely got their eat on, I simply needed to take a chance again and turn left.

Like Napoli’s in Hoboken, Culinary Creations brought eggplant to life. An extraordinary little eatery off of Pine Bush’s Main Street, Creations prepared eggplant that was to-die for. A stacked Napoleon as opposed to more traditional square-like lasagna, Culinary Creation’s eggplant sat atop a bed of artichokes and fennel ragout. Lighter than chicken but more so on the heavier side with its mangled forest of mozzarella cheese, eggplant generally tastes like a vegetable floating in a sea of sauce and cheese. This eggplant however reminded me of a perfectly erected hamburger with all the fixings. Spinach leaves and red peppers coated the balsamic drizzled delight. It dawned on me in the dining room of the tiny café that I’d never even considered that eggplant could be prepared anyway but the way I knew – the way my grandmother and aunt and chef around the corner prepared it; that it could have an identity separate from the life of a plateful of skinny eggplant cut like cucumbers fried and garnished across a white dish.

I returned to Culinary Creations the next night too. It wasn’t because I didn’t think the Japanese was really as good as the reviewers said or because I didn’t think there wasn’t a better eggplant, I didn’t order the Napoleon the second time around. I went back because I’d dined in a restaurant that challenged the way I thought about food pairings. Chicken didn’t have to be breaded or baked only, it could be pan seared before popping it in the oven. Similarly, vegetables needn’t be doused in extra virgin olive oil before lightly salted and stirred onto a plate. They could be seasoned or nuked in the microwave and eaten bland or drizzled with soy sauce. I’d gone to a café and ordered what I conceived formerly to be an Italian dish and yet, I’d never tasted a better version of eggplant to-date before I’d visited Pine Bush.

I’d gone to a rural part of New York expecting to find the town itself charming but the food mediocre at best. Instead, Pine Bush served me one hell of an eggplant and a dose of humility. 

I wish I could say that I managed to steal the recipe during my visit but I didn't, so get creative!

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